Child custody is often the most stressful part of a divorce for parents. Knowing how Washington typically determines child custody can help give you more peace of mind as you begin this legal process. It can prevent unwelcome surprises during your custody case, as well as help you decide if you need to hire a child custody attorney in Washington for legal assistance.
Every couple that goes through a divorce involving children in Washington has the opportunity to first create their own parenting plan before the decision goes to a judge. This is known as an uncontested divorce, and it will result in a settlement agreement with a parenting time plan. A settlement often involves mediation, or a meeting with both parties and an unbiased third party who can help them communicate and compromise.
Agreeing on a parenting time schedule that works for both parents allows you to remain in control of the child custody arrangement. However, working together on a parenting plan does not work for all couples. If your child custody case is contested, you will have to go to trial, where a judge will decide the best custody arrangement for your child’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Once a child custody order has been given, both parents are required to obey it – or else face legal repercussions.
The courts take child custody decisions extremely seriously. Custody is not automatically granted to the mother, father, the parent that doesn’t work full-time or the parent that receives the family home in a property division order. Instead, custody is carefully determined based on the parents’ ability to work together, the strength and nature of the child’s relationship with each parent, a parent’s caretaking role, mental health and ability to care for the child, each parent’s work schedule, and any other relevant factors.
According to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Section 26.09.184, the objectives of a permanent parenting plan are to provide for the child’s physical care, emotional stability and changing needs as the child grows to minimize conflict between the parents. The goal of a parenting plan overall is to protect the best interests of the child. RCW Section 26.09.002 states that the best interests of the child are the standard by which the courts determine and allocate parental responsibilities in a divorce case or legal separation.
Washington law states that the best interests of a child are served by a parenting time schedule that “best maintains the child’s emotional growth, health and stability, and physical care.” The law recognizes that maintaining a continuous and meaningful relationship between the child and each parent is fundamental to the welfare of the child unless this is inconsistent with the child’s best interests. This means that most court-ordered parenting time schedules involve some form of shared or joint custody with both parents.
Washington holds that what best protects a child is altering the existing pattern of interaction between each parent and the child as little as possible – only to the extent that is necessary based on the changed relationship of the parents. This means that joint custody arrangements are the most common and it is unlikely that you will lose custody of your child entirely. However, if the circumstances suggest that the child could be in danger with one parent, it is possible that the other parent will become the primary custodian while the other may or may not have visitation rights.
While there is no way to guarantee that you will get the child custody arrangement you want if your divorce case goes to trial in Washington, hiring a skilled child custody lawyer could help you build your case and improve your chances of receiving a satisfactory parenting time plan. Your goal will be to prove that remaining in your custody and care is what will serve the child’s best interest after your divorce. A lawyer will take all possible steps and actions to strengthen your custody case and protect your child.